Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for the episode 39 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Mike Scott on the Community Network Services in Georgia. Listen to this episode here.
Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Lisa Gonzalez.
In this episode, Christopher Mitchell connects with Mike Scott, City Manager from Moultrie, Georgia. Moultrie is one of several rural communities working in concert to bring Internet, TV, and phone to local citizens at an affordable price. Moultrie and the surrounding region is yet another community that needed to serve itself when the private sector stayed away. Mike and Chris talk a little about how these communities came together to create their own network that serves households, businesses, schools, libraries, and government in Moultrie. In addition to spurring economic development, Mike describes how Moultrie's approach also centers on quality of life, and how the network has managed to expand beyond the borders of Moultrie. Let's go to the interview.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you for joining us for another episode of Community Broadband Bits. Today, I'm talking with the City Manager, Mike Scott, City Manager of Moultrie, Georgia. Thank you for joining us.
Mike Scott: Glad to be here.
Chris: Can you start by telling us a little bit about Moultrie, and what the situation is there in terms of the economics, and the size of the community, whether you're rural, all those sorts of details?
Mike: Moultrie is a community of about 15,000 people, in a county of approximately 40,000 people. We're in the southwest corner of Georgia. It's a rural area, heavily agricultural. And we're a full-service city. We do solid waste, water, sewer, electric, natural gas, and telecommunications. So, we offer all those services.
Chris: So, you have this incredible network, that has helped to keep jobs in the community and bring new jobs to the community. Can you tell us a little bit about the early days, and why you decided to get involved in telecommunications?
Mike: In the late '90s, when the Internet was just becoming the buzz, we were trying to get Internet abilities into our cities. And the large telecom providers just were not making that investment. And we could not even get an answer when we might get the Internet service, and the high-speed data services that are required by businesses. And, as everybody knows, that just kept growing at a very fast pace, and we were following behind. And we saw that it was a quality of life thing for our citizens. But also we needed it for economic development. If we did not provide that service, we were going to be left in the dust. And we weren't willing to do that.
Chris: So, you did have a cable network, right?
Mike: We had various companies supplying cable TV in the communities. And in the city of Thomasville -- had started their dial-up service. And they were providing dial-up service to their communities. And these four cities had talked about looking at different ways that we could provide services to our communities at lower costs, just by aggregating our customer and our citizen base. And it kept coming back to poor service on the cable, but also, Internet was becoming a more important issue than the cable. And, as I said, we just couldn't get any answers -- or any commitments -- on when we would be brought into the -- to get those services.
Chris: You certainly had a tradition of solving your own problems with the -- as you said, you're a full-service city.
Mike: Absolutely. I mean, we kind of pride ourselves -- we've been self-reliant down here. And we're all electric cities. We all have natural gas. So those synergies were really working for us. We're in close proximity to each other. And we work -- I mean, we assist each other all the time anyway. It came together very easily. But the template for the four cities and four counties working together was kind of amazing. In the early days, we had a group from out of state come down to look at our system, and see how we put this together, and they were impressed with the technology, and all of the things that we've done. One of the things that really amazed them was the ability of four cities and four counties to come together, build this organization and this system, and then operate it. And they just -- there's a lot of people come from areas where cities and counties just can't work together. And they really thought that was something. So, we pride ourselves on that, too.
Chris: Well, absolutely. It's a terrific story. And I think it's one that's really valuable today, because, in many areas, it would be a duplication of investments if you had four different cities and four different counties each building their own head-end and everything else. But let's -- let me ask you, how did that start? Was there one city that had the idea, and others just came along? Or did you all know each other already? How did that relationship begin?
Mike: Well, we'd worked together, and they, originally, I think, were looking at doing some kind of purchasing for electrical type equipment -- transformers, and poles, and that kind of thing. And see if we could do something like a central warehouse. And I believe that's where the original idea came from. And, if I remember right, I believe that was through the city of Cairo and Thomasville that originally started those discussions. And, like I said, Thomasville had had their system. And once we got talking about this, each city did a business plan, if you will, and looked at the cost of getting into the business. And at the time, I was City Manager in Camilla. And Camilla was the smallest of the four cities. And without the participation of the other cities, we could just not have made a go of it. The numbers just were not there, due to the cost of the head-end, and the start up, and the operation, and all that. But when you join all four cities together, then those numbers looked a lot better, and we were able to do it. Each individual city passed resolutions. And we did revenue bonds. And we own the head-end, and we own all the fiber. And then each city is responsible for the territory within their particular region.
Chris: Did you split the costs on the basis of population?
Mike: Some of it was customer-based. Some of it was, more or less, population. But most of it is customer-based. Now, with the head-end and some of this joint -- we just paid 25 percent each, across the board. Some of those things are just divided up by the quarter.
Mike: Most of it is done on customer numbers.
Chris: How has the debt repayment gone? Is that according to schedule?
Mike: In different cities -- did different lengths on their bonds. And, I think, Moultrie's -- we should pay out in, I believe it's 2017. So it's not too far down the road.
Chris: So, what have some of the benefits been? You built this network because you weren't going to get access to the Internet on a timely basis otherwise. And you wanted to make sure you had the highest quality of service. What's resulted?
Mike: We've estimated, we've probably created about 6,000 jobs down here, due to the economic development -- that's in our four counties. The other thing that we did -- one of the goals that we wanted to do, as an organization, was to connect all our schools. And I -- now we have 66 of our schools, within those four counties, connected with fiber optic cable. And so that enhances their distance-learning capabilities. And also their internal networks -- payroll and those types of things. So we're kind of proud of that.
Chris: Regarding the schools, I think that's always tremendously important. People, I think, don't understand that in a number of rural areas, schools just have to pay so much. It's a real drag on the budget. Can you compare what your schools are getting from your network versus what they'd have to be getting from the existing providers?
Mike: I'm sure there is a savings there. Being in a rural area, too, we have some schools that were several miles out into the county that would probably never have been served, had we not started this initiative. But, like I said, we've got those schools connected. And we've also partnered with a couple schools in two other counties that are not members of our organization. But through intergovernmental agreements, we've gone out into two other counties, to provide schools in those counties with connectivity.
Chris: Regarding the expansion of the network -- and, you know, you've connected these schools, and, when we talked a little bit before we started recording, you said that there's another town that's connected through one of the four member towns. Has the network expanded beyond that? Or could it expand beyond that?
Mike: Yes, it could. And we look at those expansions all the time. And, currently, here in Moultrie, we're looking at doing the same thing in a couple of the smaller outlying towns in our communities that are underserved.
Chris: Is there any way that you might recommend, for policy-makers who are trying to figure out how to connect some of these people in the unincorporated areas, where the density is even lower -- have you connected anyone that fits those circumstances?
Mike: Yeah. I'm sure, whatever the industry standard is for so many customers per mile, that we're way below that. We look at, more as -- not so much profit-driven but, as I said, a quality of life for the residents, and also economic development. 'Cause you get out into some of these outlying areas, and there's businesses out there that rely on the Internet, but they just can't get the speed that they need. And we -- if at all possible, we try to get to them and get them hooked up, and make it so that they have the same capabilities that somebody could have in downtown Atlanta.
Chris: I have to ask you something that I ask almost all of our guests who are from rural areas. And that is, there's this sense among Washington, DC, policy makers, and some of the other people in big towns, that people in rural areas just -- they don't want to use the Internet, or they don't understand how to use it. And I'm always curious to get your reaction, as someone who's working in these areas. When someone says that to you, how do you react?
Mike: I don't know. It's kind of offensive, sometimes, when you hear that, because that's exactly some of the attitude that we get because we're down here in South Georgia, that connectivity's not required. And I would invite any of those people to come down here and take a look at it. And usually it just requires some education, to show them what's happening down here, and the technology that takes place. I'll give you a short example. Several years ago, when we were just getting into the business, all four cities' authorities was having a meeting in one of our cities. And we were going to invite our state representative, who was in Atlanta at the time, and we were going to videoconference him into our meeting, that we were having, at the time, down in Camilla. We could not get connectivity to Atlanta in Atlanta. So we had our representative -- took him to the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, which is our electric organization. And we had somebody drive him up there. And we connected then, from their headquarters in the north part of Atlanta, to Camilla, so we could have that videoconference. Because they do not have that capability in downtown Atlanta at that time.
Chris: Yeah. That's a good story. You know, we hear those sorts of things. I mean, a lot of people still don't realize that in many of these towns where you have done it yourself, you have the technology far ahead of others, even in urban areas.
Mike: Oh, yes. If you come in here and you tell our hospitals and our schools and our businesses that they don't need or deserve the same service that they're getting in other, larger areas -- larger population areas -- I think they'd hear a pretty good argument from our business community.
Chris: Well -- and, in fact, they did, right? I mean, there's this bill -- that is now, fortunately, stopped in the Georgia Legislature -- the Georgia General Assembly -- that would have made it very hard for other communities to do what you've done. And that would have made it harder for you to expand. So, I'm very glad that you were able to make sure your voice would be heard in that process. And the legislature, sensibly, vote not to restrict your authority.
Mike: Absolutely. And that's -- I think that's the third time that that's come up, that they've tried to do like a preemptive strike on us through legislation. And we were fortunate, again, to have that defeated. And I would expect it to come again, but we keep getting a stronger voice. But it's a tough fight when you're fighting those big-dollar companies. I mean, they've got a lot of money and lobbyists and things like that, that we can't do. And it's an uphill battle. But, fortunately, we had good representation in the legislature. And those people fought the fight for us. And it was a lot of hard work, but we were happy with the outcome.
Chris: Yes. Well, I think that something that's often missed is that, while all of those companies basically live in the legislature, and there are a FEW representatives of Georgia municipalities that are also able to spend a lot of time in the legislature, you know, for a city manager to drive up there and testify and spend a day, that's a real hit. You know, that's a real chunk of your job that you have to put on pause to go and take care of this. And I just hope that -- I would love for you not to have to do that again.
Mike: [laughs] Yeah. Me, too.
Chris: I'm always amazed as just how many interesting stories there are from towns that have done really great things that too few people know about.
Mike: Yeah. That's by no means been easy. I mean, there's been a lot of work to it, and a lot of pain.
Mike: All that kind of thing. And -- But it's coming along. And we're into the telephone business also. I think cell phone's going to change that playing field. But we do offer telephone service.
Chris: Yeah. I kind of suspect that in another five or ten years, people will think, why would I pay for a phone call? In the same way that they think, why would I pay for an email?
Mike: Yeah. What I think you're going to see is, it's going to get away from the residential. And it's going to be in the small business and commercial. Because they're going to still have to have that ...
Mike: ... landline, switchboard-type thing. And I think that's where you're going to see it go. I mean, we're talking over voice-over-IP right now. We've installed that in all of our city offices here ...
Chris: Um hum.
Mike: ... and we've cut our phone bill by about 50 percent.
Mike: I mean, that's the future. And we want to be there. And had we not done it, we'd still be picking up the crumbs.
Chris: Well, is there anything else that we should know about Moultrie that we haven't covered.
Mike: We did a DVD that we made available to some of our legislators, and also explains the -- kind of the history of our four-city authority. And we could also make that available to you, and you could use it however you wish. But I think -- it's a good thing, just telling our story -- from starting from scratch -- really, zero customers. And we're up to 18,000 customers now. We're still looking at growing. And we've become a pretty big operation.
Chris: Yes, we'd love to see the DVD. And love to put it up on our website, and share it with others. So, please do share that with us, and we'll get it up with our -- along with this story.
Mike: Sure. We'd be happy to do that.
Chris: All right. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Mike: I appreciate your having us.
Lisa: That was Christopher and City Manager Mike Scott, from Moultrie, Georgia. We hope you get a chance to check out the video Mike mentioned, that describes the network and its benefits. You can also learn more about the community by visiting the city website, at moultriega.com . Follow the "CNS" button for Community Network Services, to learn details about what the network offers residents and business customers.
We want your questions or comments. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow us on Twitter to learn about all the most recent developments relating to community networks, broadband policy, and telecommunications. Our handle is @communitynets . This show was released on March 26th, 2013. Thanks to D. Charles Speed & the Helix for their song, "Freddie's Lapels," licensed using Creative Commons. Thanks for listening.